Race is not only about African Americans (or how a Podcast and a Digital History Class made me change the focus of my project)

Dr. Jozefien De Bock is a 2017-2018 Belgian Fulbright scholar to Clemson University. A postdoctoral researcher of history, her project is entitled “Mill Town Memories: The Desegregation of the Textile Industry and its Impact on Race Relations in the South”. Below, Jozefien discusses the impact of her interactions with students and faculty at Clemson University on the focus of her research.

This month, a graduate student in the History Department of my host institution – one of the many amazing people I have met during my first two months here in the States – pointed me in the direction of a podcast that he thought I might be interested in. It had to do with the issue of race in the US, and as this was the focus of my research, he figured it would be something I would like to hear. The 2017 podcast he referred me to, is run by Duke University’s Audio Program Director John Biewen, together with Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika (until last year at Clemson, my host institution! I was so upset when I found out I just missed this incredible scholar!). Starting to listen to the first episodes, I realized this was one of the best podcasts about race I had yet encountered. Entitled ‘Seeing White’, it focuses on that ‘other side’ of the issue of race – whiteness. I highly recommend you give it a try.

The contention that whiteness is the necessary ‘other side of the medal’ for any study pertaining to race is not new. Already in 1994, Theodore W. Allen published his masterpiece ‘The Invention of the White Race’. Here, he convincingly shows how ‘whiteness’ was invented and pushed for by the upper classes in the aftermath of united black and white poor people’s efforts to rebel against oppression in the late 17th century. Today, the two-volume work is recognized as one of the classics, necessary to understand American history and broader, the history of race and race relations across the world. It is currently sitting on my bookshelf in the office that I share with two colleagues here at Clemson.

However, despite the approaching 25th birthday of Allen’s masterpiece, most of the media’s – and academics’ – attention to race still focuses on African Americans, their lives and their experiences. Biewen, as main host of the Podcast, admits in its first episode that also his work on race has mostly ignored the ‘White side of the story’. Listening to Biewen and Kumanyika discussing this slant attention to ‘whiteness’, I had one of those moments where it seems that all the pieces suddenly fall into the right place. In my own work, and especially in the research I did for my PhD, I had put the focus squarely on the trajectories of immigrant laborers in my hometown, Ghent. Only after finishing the research did I come to feel that a very important perspective to understand immigrant integration in the city was missing: that of the local population. Of course, I still do think that it is a worthwhile effort to put people whose history often remains invisible or only partly visible into the spotlight, and debunk many of the myths that surround their story. I have a similar feeling about the topic I am embarking upon in the framework of this Fulbright grant. The history of the textile industry in the US South seems so incredibly white, and it initially was my intention to focus on how African Americans experienced their entry into and continued presence in this industry. But the more I listened to the episodes of ‘Seeing White’, the more I became convinced that there was another way to go about things.

At the same time, under the influence of an excellent class on Digital and Public History that I have the privilege to take here – a field that is far more advanced here in the States than in Europe – I started to question some other aspects of my research project. Most of the sources I had managed to find so far were website and booklets of people that were not professional historians, but members of the public with a particular interest in textile history. Clearly, a lot of locals find a sense of pride in the grand industrial history of their town. And now that the industrial remains of the local textile industry are being converted to up-scale lofts, restaurants and art galleries, this heritage is becoming a source of even more pride and belonging – as well as economic benefit. I thought it would be interesting to try and see in how far the local people, heritage associations and cultural institutions, are interested in opening up the existing heritage landscape to the more recent history of textiles. Here, the issue of race would necessarily take up a dominant place.

Monaghan Mill in Greenville | PC: Will Easley (Own work)

So this week, I decided to try out another approach: instead of looking at African Americans in the textile industry, I will set out to create a public history project that will look at the postwar history of Southern Textiles as a whole. This project will actively seek out the stories of both black and white workers, and its focus will be dictated by time (1945-1995) and place (Greenville, SC) rather than color. It will summarize the results of my research, as well as publicize the sources upon which it is based, on a publicly accessible website. Further, it will aim to be an open-ended and crowd-sourced project, meaning that the site will be open to input from whomever visits it and wants to add their stories, pictures, videos etc. in order to broaden the story told. I am aiming for a mini-version of this amazing ‘Colored Conventions’ website from the University of Delaware.

Keeping an open mind and striving to write a story that will be representative for ALL textile workers in postwar Greenville, my goal is to try and mainstream the issue of race, rather than separate it from a broader socio-economic history. That does not mean however that it will not be addressed. The desegregation of the textile industry was one of the most important developments in its postwar history, and the impact it had on the lives of established workers and newcomers, both black and white, was enormous. It only means that I will try to look at it from a broader perspective. Undoubtedly, the many people I have met here and will meet over the next few months will help me with this endeavor.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.